Wednesday, September 30, 2009

X-Men Forever #1-5

Because you demanded it...

"Love -- and Loss!"
Writer: Chris Claremont
Penciller: Tom Grummett
Inker: Cory Hamscher
Letterer: Tom Orzechowski
Colourist: Wilfredo Quintana
Editor: Mark Paniccia

X-Men Forever must hold some sort of record for the most convoluted premise of an ongoing Marvel series. It's an X-Men series, of course, but not just any X-Men series. No, this is an X-Men series written by Chris Claremont, picking up where he left off in 1991. So it's the stories that would have appeared if Claremont had stuck around... except it isn't, really, because the stories that would have appeared in an alternate 1991 wouldn't have been much like this at all.

How times have changed. The Marvel that cancelled X-Men: The Hidden Years would never have commissioned a series like this. But then, Marvel have been searching for a role for Chris Claremont for a while now. He's no longer a writer that you could put on a flagship title; he's returned to the mainstream X-Men titles twice, to decidedly muted reaction. And he's not at his best having to play along with inter-title crossovers, even though he clearly gives it his best shot. But there's still an audience who want to read his stories, so he's been given a string of self-contained projects on the fringes of the X-Men universe - the off-to-the-side-somewhere X-Treme X-Men, an Excalibur relaunch, an Exiles revamp, X-Men: The End, and most recently GeNext - where he's been allowed, at least for a while, to do his thing for his audience.

Most of those books, though, weren't especially good. Since it was Claremont who got me into superhero comics in the first place, there's always a part of me hoping for a return to form. But I approach a project like this with some scepticism.

But, quite unexpectedly, X-Men Forever turns out to be the best thing Claremont's done in a long while. It's not because of the convoluted premise as such. It's more that the premise frees Claremont from the need to accommodate anyone else's ideas, unless he positively wants to write them in. He seems more comfortable here than he has been in years. Where X-Men: The End was overloaded and Exiles was meandering, this is actually focussed, and energetic, and fun.

Now, that's not to say Claremont is picking up where he left off. He's doing no such thing. To do that series, you'd really need to pick up somewhere before the end of his run, before the editors insisted on hitting the reset button and moving everyone back to the re-built mansion and putting Xavier back in a wheelchair. It's often overlooked now, but by the end of his run Claremont had spent several years doing his best to dismantle the X-Men status quo, and had more or less turned the title into a globetrotting adventure series which didn't even have an official X-Men team to star in it. Left to his own devices, one suspects, he would simply have wandered even further from the classic set-up, or at least strayed for longer.

What's more, if Claremont had been writing the book in 1991, he wouldn't have jettisoned the vast majority of the cast and replaced them with half of Excalibur. He wouldn't have killed off Wolverine in his second issue (he wouldn't have been allowed to, because Wolverine already had a solo title - even if it was a feint, as seems likely). He wouldn't have suddenly brought in Nick Fury out of nowhere, flanked by a continuity-busting team of second generation Howling Commandos murmuring that their dads fought in World War II. He probably wouldn't have revived the "Storm gets turned into a little kid" story which, at the time, had only just been wrapped up.

And he wouldn't have done any of this with Tom Grummett on art. If Claremont had hung around long enough to see Jim Lee depart for Image, he'd probably have ended up working with the likes of Andy Kubert instead, rather than Grummett's more solid and traditional style. The X-Men hadn't looked like this in years - you'd be going back to the earlier days of Marc Silvestri's run, at best, before his style had fully developed.

This is not a comic book of the 1990s, alternate or otherwise. It's a throwback to the eighties. But then, so it should be; that's Claremont's heyday, and that's the period they're really trying for. For the most part, though, he's wisely gone for the style of those stories, rather than picking up on the details of old stories. There's Storm as a young girl, admittedly, and it's odd that the series hasn't seen fit to explain this 20-year-old plot in more detail.

But 1991 was a break point in the X-Men's stories, and Magneto had just been killed off (in the days when this was still somewhat newsworthy, if not exactly novel), so Claremont finds himself free to start a bunch of new stories. He gives us a conspiracy plot about a group called the Consortium who seem to have turned Storm evil, a story which seems to be setting up Sabretooth as a replacement Wolverine, and a big reveal which inverts the whole nature of mutants, casting them as a doomed genetic quirk rather than the next generation of evolution. All of which is actually quite promising stuff, and would have worked back in the day.

I wasn't too impressed by issue #1 when it came out; on first reading, it's basically a big fight scene where the X-Men take on Fabian Cortez and then eventually win. It's much better on a second reading, when you can see it laying the groundwork for future issues. Claremont isn't often regarded as the most subtle of writers, and he does have a tendency to write scenes which practically have a flashing neon sign saying "Look, a subplot!" But there are also plenty of times when he doesn't do this - so, for example, issue #1 has Rogue making throwaway comments that only make sense in the light of the later Storm plot, and Kitty unobtrusively nursing a sore arm to set up a story three issues later. This sort of thing happened a lot in Claremont's original run, and tended to feed the impression that everything was playing into a grand design (and sometimes they even were) - but it hasn't been so apparent in his more recent stories. I'm pleased to see it.

The Storm plot works surprisingly well, too. Claremont's set up a decent mystery here, partly by using the unfashionable device of thought balloons to establish that the adult Storm isn't an impostor (or at least, doesn't think she is), without actually giving away much information about what's going on.

Granted, some of it's stupid. Kitty gets a fully functional retractable claw from Wolverine in a phasing accident? That's stretching the boundaries of credibility, to put it politely. And when the baddies start telling us that Kitty is suddenly massively dangerous now that she has a claw, they're surely overstating the threat posed by what is still essentially just a dagger.

But I can live with some of it being stupid, because in many ways this does manage to recapture the strengths of Claremont's original run, and it is something of a return to form after many nostalgia projects that weren't quite on the money. This could so easily have been an awkward raking over of past glories, and it's an unexpected pleasure to see it actually coming together like this.

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